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Why the skeptical violence?

by Bruno Van de Casteele

February 2, 2014

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Donate Last December, I received an email that made me frown. No, not some woo-mail promoting whatever unscientific fad, and not even the usual viagra-related spam. It was a fundraising email from the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) which I respect. (I have given in the past and will give in the future, despite the mail.)

The subject read "Will you join the battle against unreason?" (own emphasis), and in the mail were some mentions of "intellectual self-defense" and "fighting the fakers". The mail itself didn't really make me frown, it was the title. I wondered if it was really necessary to use, even in a symbolic sense, this violent imagery? Does it help or hinder? And why was I bothered by it?

I'm sure it was all meant without intention of doing any harm or promoting violence. And I'm even considering that, given the text in the mail, it probably helped get some funds. But frankly, I still wonder if it was really necessary. I receive a lot of fundraising emails, and DJ Grothe or James Randi sending me a mail with the subject "Will you join me against unreason" works as well for me.

I started wondering if it was more than just one fundraising email. The good news: apparently not. I couldn't find any more reference to "battle", unless it was from people arguing against skeptics. That was the case for instance with the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project. I like the project itself, but maybe the word "guerilla" is not the best choice of words. And some contrarians and even pseudoscience enthusiasts have noticed. And it is probably not a good choice words to describe whatever happened between Wikipedia edits and Sheldrake as a "battle". Evidently, not by the Guerilla Skeptics themselves, but by one of their "adversaries". I speculate that the project name might not be helping ... and this page on shows you can get the same meaning with the less violent "fix".

There are some mentions of "fights" going around within skeptic communication. The above mentioned speaks about "fight pseudoscience" on another page, and it was also part of the title for last year's Amazing Meeting from the JREF. And even our very own Brian Dunning speaks in his "About" page about "fighting the good fight". Not the same degree of violence as a "battle" of course, and I think there is a big gap between "fight" and "battle". Battle is, to me, over the top.

I'm going to refer to a blog that has nothing to do with skepticism or science. Mr Media Training (in real life Brad Phillips) reflected on usage of violent imagery by politicians on the occasion of the anniversary of the murder on Kennedy. As he pointed out, there is no causal relation between violent wordings and political murder and shootings. But he strongly advises against usage of it, anyway. It diminishes from those who have actually have experienced violence, and Phillips condemns the "utter disrespect" and "stunning insensitivity".

I think Phillips expresses, though a bit harsh, what my initial frown on the JREF mail was about. Be it in internal or external communication, the use of violent words like "battle" isn't helping, and only enforces an "us against them" mentality on all sides of the issue. It also shows disrespect against those who have fought in real battles and even paid the ultimate price for it. Yes, the issues we as skeptics have to tackle are phenomenal and dangerous, too, but that isn't an excuse to use such a loaded term.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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